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Francis Gary Powers’ last act as a pilot saved lives on the ground

Ned Jilton II • May 13, 2020 at 9:00 PM

The pandemic continues to alter the schedule of local history happenings. The Tri-Cities Civil War Roundtable’s program with ETSU history professor Andrew Slap, speaking on Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and the constitution during the Civil War era, scheduled for May 11, has been rescheduled for June 8. It will be a part of the TCCWRT’s 30th anniversary celebration.

The Siege of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park has also been rescheduled from May 16-17 to Nov. 14-15. It will coincide with the Autumn Heritage Celebration and Colonial Harvest Event.

Going back to last week’s column, there is a lot more to the story of Francis Gary Powers from Pound, Virginia. Especially after he returned home and later in life.

When Powers returned to America, he faced a few critics. Some said he should have used his CIA-provided suicide pin that was concealed inside the coin that was hung around his neck. Others said he told the Russians too much while in prison. A few even said he flew too low, allowing himself to be shot down.

However, several politicians and government officials came to Powers’ defense.

Sen. Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts said, “I commend you as a courageous, fine young American citizen who lived up to your instructions and who did the best you could under very difficult circumstances.”

Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the father of President George H.W. Bush, said, “I am satisfied he has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and in accordance with the highest traditions of service to one’s country, and I congratulate him upon his conduct in captivity.”

In March 1964, former CIA Director Allen Dulles said, “He performed his duty in a very dangerous mission and he performed it well, and I think I know more about that than some of his detractors and critics know.”

You can see a newsreel about Powers’ 1962 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and hear him speak to reporters afterward at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbABVg_cANI.

Powers later worked as a test pilot for Lockheed for eight years before he became a helicopter traffic reporter for KNBC News Channel 4 in California. In this job he again become a hero, but lost his life.

On Aug. 1, 1977, Powers and cameraman George Spears were covering wildfires in Santa Barbara County. Shortly after noon, Powers radioed that they had finished gathering footage and were flying back to Burbank. He believed he had enough fuel for the return trip but, unbeknownst to him, an aviation mechanic had worked on the fuel gauge, and it wasn’t giving an accurate reading.

Shortly after he reported to KNBC, Powers realized he was very low on fuel and radioed the tower at Van Nuys Airport requesting clearance to land due to low fuel. Unfortunately, the engine died and he was forced to attempt an emergency landing in the Sepulveda Dam Recreational Area.

When a helicopter loses power, it doesn’t fall like a rock. Pilots use a technique call autorotation to bring the powerless craft safely to the ground.

In normal flight, the helicopter’s engine drives the rotors, pulling air down to provide lift. When the engine fails, the rotors disengage from the engine and spin freely. As the helicopter goes down, the pilot adjusts the controls so that the air, which is now coming up through the rotors, causes the blades to spin faster, which gives the pilot the ability to have a controlled glide to the ground.

As Powers was autorotating down, he realized he was heading toward a group of kids on a baseball field and made an abrupt maneuver to avoid them. The action moved the disabled craft away from the children, but negated the autorotation effect, causing the helicopter to drop like a rock.

The aircraft crashed about 50 yards from the kids, gouging a trench 20 feet long in the earth and flipping upside-down. Both Powers and Spears were killed, but no one on the ground was hurt.

“His flight direction was directly toward the ball field where the boys were. He fell down, about 50 yards from where the boys were playing ... and I think he purposely nosed it down in an unoccupied area,” said Sgt. Dennis Ruegsegger of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Powers’ last act as a pilot was to sacrifice himself to save the lives of children on the ground. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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